ALIEN hunters have stumbled upon an undiscovered moon orbiting Neptune.
The icy lump, named Hippocamp after a mythological sea beast, is just 18 miles wide, making it the smallest of Neptune’s moons.
nasa Neptune (pictured) is the eighth planet from the sun
It takes the planet’s moon count to 14, and could become a key target it our search for extraterrestrial life.
That’s because scientists think icy moons present our best chance of finding alien microbes lurking within the solar system.
Hippocamp was discovered by experts at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California.
Using Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope, they tracked Neptune’s six inner moons – which were discovered during a flyby by Nasa’s Voyager 2 space probe in 1989.
SETI Institute This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows how scientists found Hippocamp (red box)
Using the telescope’s special image processing power, they found a seventh inner moon that wasn’t spotted by Voyager 2.
Naming it Hippocamp after the sea creature of Greek mythology, the team then investigated the moon’s shape and size.
They found it is by far Neptune’s smallest moon, measuring only 18 miles across.
That makes it more than 100 times smaller than Earth’s only moon.
SETI Institute Hippocamp orbits close to Proteus, a much larger Neptunium moon. Scientists think Hippocamp was created when a comet smashed into its bigger sibling. Also pictured are the estimated sizes of Neptune’s other inner moons
But despite its plucky size, Hippocamp could host alien life.
A report last year argued that the “necessities of life” – like water and energy – are “common in the Solar System”.
Dr David L Clements, of the Imperial College London, said that icy moons are the most likely candidates, but admitted that getting to any microbes living there will prove difficult.
“The conclusion of this analysis for our own Solar System is that the interior of the icy moons may be where the bulk of life in the Solar System is to be found,” he wrote in a scientific paper on his findings.
“However, this life, intelligent or otherwise, would be locked beneath many kilometres of solid ice.”
What is the Hubble Space Telescope?Here’s what you need to know…
The Hubble Space Telescope captures images while in space
It was launched into a low-Earth orbit in 1990 and is still fully operational
The advantage of Hubble is that it takes photos from outside of Earth’s atmosphere
This means distortion from the atmosphere is removed, allowing for more accurate image capture
Hubble has captured some of our most detailed images of space
It was also able to accurately determine the rate at which the universe is expanding
Hubble is the only telescope that was designed to be serviced by astronauts in space
Five different missions have been launched to repair, upgrade or replace parts of the telescope
It’s believed that the Hubble telescope could continue working until 2040
But its successor – the James Webb Space Telescope – is already set for launch in March 2021
Hippocamp orbits close to Proteus, the largest of Neptune’s inner moons.
Scientists think the new moon was created when a comet smashed into Proteus, though they have no idea when this collision occurred.
Their theory is backed by a huge crater on Proteus dubbed Pharos – a telltale sign that the moon barely survived an enormous impact in its past.
Debris throw up by the collision was likely drawn together by Protes’s gravitational pull to form Hippocamp.
The research was published in the journal Nature.
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It’s one of many incredible recent discoveries about the universe.
Last month, scientists suggested Uranus was “reshaped inside and out” by a cataclysmic collision with Super Earth.
The first moon ever found outside the solar system was discovered 8,000 light years from our planet last year.
We still understand very little about the universe: Here are six baffling space mysteries that even Nasa’s top boffins can’t explain.
Do you think we should search Hippocamp for alien life? Let us know in the comments!
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